Friday, November 11, 2016

Change is Possible. With Cats

I have this cat. A bit under two years ago, I changed her vitamin mix, and she went from anxious and reactive to calm and damn-near approaching mellow.

Back before the new supplementation, this would happen: I'd be be walking by her and she'd tense up, lurch to one side. I'd veer, not wanting to trip over her, and then she'd dash in another direction, usually exactly into my leg, careening off of it, forcing me to then trip-hop over her. Then she'd make a mad rush to the other side of the house, where she'd hide, because, from her point of view, she'd just been attacked.

All because... well. Because she was, at baseline, hyper-vigilant and super anxious.

She is now a changed cat. In that same scenario, she simply stands there, unconcerned, and lets me walk by. Or step over her. Less wasted energy and -- needless to say -- a far more pleasant experience for us both.

I rather doubt that before her biochemistry changed, she saw herself as tense, nor do I think that afterwards she thought of herself as relaxed. She doesn't think that way. Not much for self-reflection.

No, from her point of view, the outside world just got better. Things were more settled, humans were kinder. More predictable. Some of this is credit to her walnut-sized brain's ability to re-pattern -- to learn -- to see things differently, when things felt different.

This is what's called a "virtuous circle" -- the better things get for her, the more she is able to see those things that are better for her, and the less she is looking for -- and finding -- things that are worse. Like clumsy humans trying to kill her with her their huge columns of legs, necessitating a mad dash for survival.

I'm not trying to make a particular point here. I'm observing patterns I've seen recently, up-close and personal. In my cat. And yes, in humans as well.

That our internal and external states influence and reinforce each other is hardly news, but how powerful that effect can be is sometimes shocking. My cat's baseline has changed radically, and her behavioral alterations are both obvious and significant, improving the world for her human companions as well. Her new ability to see the good in her world changed her world -- for the good.

Does she see that the change in her world originated inside herself? I rather doubt it. Could this have happened without that baseline change to her biochemistry? Alas, no.

Extrapolating to humans, we cannot simply will ourselves to see things differently -- it's not enough. We must touch and change the many systems that touch us. I tried to tell my cat that all her problems were attitude many times before the biochemical change, and it made not one whit of difference.

In this way people are not so unlike cats. We are each of us made up of multiple interlocking biochemical systems. We are part of multiple interlocking social systems. Many multitudinous and complex, interlocking systems, all affecting the other systems swirling around and through.

My cat didn't listen to my advice about her attitude. My fine lectures were twitched away by her feline ears.

The world is not simple. We are not simple. But change -- significant change -- is possible.




Thursday, September 29, 2016

An Apology to Editors Everywhere

A writer friend of mine, trying his hand at editing for an online fiction magazine for the first time, dropped me a note. It's written as an open letter to editors everywhere, but I think it might be better reading for new writers everywhere.

I'm sure he assumed only I would see it, but it was too good to keep to myself.


Dear Editors,

I've got no shame admitting I didn't really take Standard Manuscript Format all that seriously. Indenting every paragraph? How silly! Page numbers? Utter fancy! My job is to write an amazing story, not worry about inches and margins and page breaks. Let the editor squint at the screen and dope out the minutia.

I felt this way until I read a story that didn't simply ignore Standard Manuscript Format, but left it clear out in the cold. Let it stand there holding a wilted posey watching the story breeze by it on the way to the big school dance with the varsity quarterback and not even getting a glance back.

No page numbers to guide me through the maze, no indication of when the story changed scenes until I was a dozen words into the next sentence and thoroughly confused. Page after nonsensical page that challenged my comprehension and, to the pain of the author, my interest.

Sisyphus never nudged such a burden as I while reading this story.

So to you, editors who suffered and labored to grasp what I aimed for without making myself clear, leaving you no footholds to scale the mountain, making no effort to be plain and precise so you may read the story rather than grapple fruitlessly with the way it was written, I am sorry.

I didn't know, and it's a pitiful excuse to make, but I really didn't. I get it now, maybe too late but I get it. I finally understand the importance of following, nay, championing Standard Manuscript Format. It couldn't be taught or explained to me. I had to suffer to reach the realization. And suffer I did.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph with a cherry on top of each, I'm sorry.

-- Prodigal Guest Editor


Monday, September 12, 2016

THE RULES (Writers and Rejections)

The Rules

From the Writer Rejection Points Rules Committee

POINTS. You, the writer, will be awarded points for every story you write that is rejected. SFWA qualifying markets are not required, though you must be rejected by someone who could actually have published you, for actual readers, had they said yes. Which they didn't.

WHAT, YOU DIDN'T KNOW? Didn't know about the rules before? No problem! You still get points. Yes, retroactively! Yes, we mean it!

POINTS EXPIRE. Point expire any time you win a major writing award (Hugo, Nebula, Dragon, etc), or make it to the NYT Best-seller list or the like. You know what I'm talking about. Yes, you do. At that moment, your talley gets cleared.

POINTS REDEEMABLE? You bet. Points are redeemable for pretty excellent prizes, if we do say so ourselves. You can be deliriously happy, you can be artistically miserable. We also have a goat behind one of the doors. Points are redeemed at random, by forces beyond your control. You'll know it when it happens.

FEELING COMPETITIVE? No problem. To remove points from another's tally, do something that results in them getting published, like introducing them to an editor or publisher, or advocating their story directly in some fashion that results in the thing hitting ink.

BONUS POINTS! if your story gets rejected with a scathing critique that leaves you feeling flattened because in your heart of hearts you know the grains of truth are going to crunch as you chew on them, you get bonus points.

NO CHEATING. You can't just resubmit for more points. You get rejected once per market. C'mon, you knew that. There are other ways to cheat, too, and you're already thinking about them. Cut it out.

AND... GO! Write something! Submit it! For The Win!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On the merrits of being unplugged (not really about thumbs)


I didn't expect to be completely unplugged for the long weekend. No wifi, that I already knew that the cabin lacked. But that's okay, I told myself, because my phone can do all those things via cell.

At the cabin and all over the town: rushing river, tall pines. Deep quiet.

No cell.

Wait, no cell? No CELL? But... but...

"You're going to be fine," I tell myself reassuringly, as if addressing a small child who has misplaced a thumb or two. "You can go without cell for a few days."

Days? You want me to go without internet and SMS and email ... and...and...

"There, there," I tell myself, perhaps less gently than I might. "You don't need thumbs anyway, and it's high time you learned to go without. Just for-- " And this next part I admit I say through clenched teeth:"-- a few days. Get a grip."

You want me to grip without thumbs? Without Internet?

My lower lip threatened to tremble.

Many alive today remember a time when most trips to remote areas meant going without communication devices. That's just how it was, and it wasn't a big deal.

But you get used to things. You think of them as yours. As thumbs.

Apparently I was no longer able to make the smooth jump to a thumbless existence.

For three days.

But three days later..

You know what? Being unplugged was some kind of awesome. The quiet wasn't just in the trees, or the river, or the land. It was in me.

No more checking messages in multiple places. No more shredded focus. Just me, the river, and my thoughts.

So if you call me, text me, ping me, chat me, skype me, or some such, and I don't reply, I might be indulging in a little unplugging.

I recommend it. Turns out you get to keep your thumbs after all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reflections on a violent encounter

It's a privilege to come out of an assault intact.

I say that because, as those of you in the field of self-defense know, it's far more often about luck than skill. Staying alert, knowing what to do -- yes, these are good things. But there's more going on in a violent encounter that you can't control than that you can.

Today I was lucky.

The man who came into the cafe wasn't after me. He was after another woman. He didn't have a weapon, but he had fists, elbows, a loud voice, and a shocking willingness to do damage to everyone between him and her.

I knew the moment I heard the tone of his voice that he was dangerous. We don't always get that kind of warning, but I did.

I dropped down out of sight, behind a cement barrier -- because I didn't know what weapons he might have -- and called 911. I wasn't his target, the cafe was small, and other people were confronting him, so that was clearly my job -- to make sure someone called for backup.

And backup was exactly what it was, because despite being in-city, by the time the cops arrived, some 10 minutes later, the man in the baseball cap and blue hoodie yelling threats at everyone including a pretty dark-haired woman he didn't know -- and then picking up a table and slamming it against the door that had been closed against him -- was long gone.

So I stand corrected: he did have a weapon. A table. He had been pushed outside, the door shut against him, and he picked up a table and slammed it against the glass door until it broke. Yelling, screaming, but unable to get back in, he finally left.

I found out later that the woman who was the target of this assault had just come in. He'd started yelling at her on the sidewalk up the block, out of the blue. She'd run into the cafe for sanctuary. He followed, yelling, threatening. Swinging fists and elbows.

She didn't know him. Had never seen him before in her life.

If he'd had a gun, or a knife, I am sure he would have used it. He didn't, so the woman was scared, shaken, but physically whole.

I've practiced these types of scenarios across the years. Today I saw that my training actually works; I knew what to look for, what to listen for. I knew what to do and how to do it.

More importantly, I knew what he could do, and what I could do in response.

I don't want to talk about weapons, or how to control them. I don't want to talk about mental illness, or violence. These are topics in heated discussion today.

Today I just want to say this:

Violence can be fast, unpredictable, and senseless. Sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter how fast or strong or prepared you are, all that stands between you and being the target of that violence is luck.

Today I was lucky.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Words about words + Emu Eggs

I've been writing about writing a fair bit lately. Along with topics like character creation, world-building, and, of course, emu eggs.

An interesting time, to be sure.  Some fascinating questions have been thrown at me.

Here are the goods, so you can see for yourself.

Success or Death – Making Every Character Count

April's theme at Fictorians was memorable characters, in which Ace Jordyn interviews me about the characters in The Seer. When she asks me about the Hidden City, I show her pictures. You can see them, too.

The Big Idea


Author John Scalzi gives writers a chance to talk about the Big Idea in their books. Here I dive into the particular challenges of writing a main character who can see into the future.
"I had stepped into a very large pile of metaphysics; if someone can see the future, this implies significant truths about the nature of reality, truths that ripple out across this created world.What had I gotten myself into?"

A Dish Best Served Light 


Inkpunks is a collective of authors, editors, and various other creatives. In this article, I compare narrative to fine dining.

"Remember in that one book, how you skimmed part of the narrative because it wasn’t all that tasty? Entirely skippable? Like smooshed peas, or aunt Cora’s beet-and-anchovy salad, a narrative you just didn’t want to consume?"

Book Bites: For Appearances

A humble recipe by my own self, inspired by one of many working lunches at the royal palace.

"This man is the Lord Commander of the empire, so he’s not going to be eating cheese and meat and a hunk of bread for a working lunch. How would that look? Appearances, after all."

Will Build Worlds for Spare Change


Why money matters so very much in world building. About coins, symbols, and historians who hate fantasy.

"I'm an historian", she said darkly. "I don’t read fantasy novels. They get the details all wrong."
Yes, that's an emu egg


Eating Authors

Author Lawrence Schoen interviews me about some memorable meals.

I end up telling him how to prepare emu eggs.



Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Reader Reports Back

I met Mary last year. She immediately struck me as intelligent and thoughtful. I mentioned my book The Seer to her, and that it would be coming out this year.

A bit like Game of Thrones, I told her.

"I don't know, then," she said, doubtfully, glancing down at her four-year-old, holding her hand as the girl fidgeted. "I got through the first two books and the story is good, but way too violent. It was making me paranoid. I love to read, but that..." she shook her head. "I had to stop. It was too much."

At that point I was finishing up the final draft of Seer. I had been wondering if the story's harsher parts were hitting the right note. It was important to me that the rough sections weren't gratuitously violent.

I asked her if she would tell me what she thought of it, if she read it. "Even if you don't finish it," I said, "That's fine. I just want to know what you think. You, especially."

"Sure," she said.

Since Seer's launch a month and a half ago, I've heard from some readers who found the book darker and rougher than they expected. When someone writes that they found the story too violent, or that they were negatively triggered by it, I think about it. I take such comments to heart.

Because I don't write for the spectacle of gore. I write for story and characters. For a plot that matters. For the ring of truth.

Today I saw Mary for the first time in months. When she came up to me and said, "I finished it!" I had some trepidation about what she would say next.

She smiled hugely. "I loved it," she said. "So much. It was great!"

For a moment I just let that sink in. Author food, every word.

And the violence, I asked?

"It was fine. It was there, sure -- that's the world -- but it wasn't... for show. You didn't dwell on it.  It was appropriate to the story."

She went on, listing the many things she liked.

"The ending," she said. "I loved how you wrapped things up, without being depressing, like so many books. There was hope. A lot of it."

Yes.

When a reader understands my story, I feel a soaring joy, a deep humility. I become keenly aware of the connection I've made with this other human being who has taken taken the time to journey through my world.

"I want the next one!" she added, taking her daughter by the hand.

This. This is why I write.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The View from the Other Side of the Autograph Line

A week ago, my novel The Seer was released into print. (An interesting phrase, isn't it? I can almost see a large purple book flapping its covers and taking flight into the air. Fly free, my released darling! Fly!)

That very night I read aloud to a group of people from chapter one at the University of Washington bookstore. Everyone who showed up, it seemed, wanted me to sign their copy. Not just sign it. Personalize it.

A few days previous I had bought Jump Start Your Novel from Mark Teppo at the Rainforest retreat. The book he gave me was already autographed, so I asked him to personalize it.

"To Sonia," he wrote.

"No, wait," I said, laughing. "That's only my name." I handed it back. "I want something personal. Just write something. Anything you like."

It seemed perfectly reasonable to me. After all, how hard could it be to write a quick note to someone you've talked to for hours over the course of a few days? Heck, we were practically friends.

Some ten minutes later, I got the book back from him, with a few sentences scrawled in a barely legible hand. Good enough, I decided, and thought nothing more of it.

Back to the night of my reading, where a growing number of people want me to sign their book. Fast, because the store is closing in mere minutes.

And, in addition to their name, could I personalize it? Write something? Anything I like.

My mind, ever the stalwart companion, goes utterly blank.

What is this close friend's name again?

Oh, how very different all this looks from the other side of the line.

As a reader I think I'm being all agreeable and easy-going by saying, just write what you like. But the catch is that we readers don't mean that. We want something unique, something that reflects our connection to the author and this special moment we're sharing together.

This moment in which the author is signing as fast as they can and horrified to discover that she can't remember your name.

You know what the author really truly wants to write in your book? I'll tell you: whatever will make you happy, as long as you spell it out for her, word by word.

"Just tell me," I beg a woman with what I hope is a charming smile but is probably a stressed, maniacal grin. I try not to look past her to the growing line of people, many clutching multiple copies.

She gives me a confused look. Which I understand. As a reader, I expect the author can write something easily. Just a line or two. Small, but witty. About that one time we went camping together, maybe. Or that joke we shared. Remember? Come on, I'm not some stranger. You know me!

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, the store is about to close, and the only clever thing I can think to write is: "Thanks for all the fish," and that's not okay.

I had no idea it would be this hard, being on the other side of the table. My mind has never been so clean.

I'm not complaining, you understand. This is the best possible outcome for a book launch, to have lots of people want a signed copy. It's an honor, and truly, I do love this. I just want more than a few seconds per person to do it right. A lot more time. A week per autograph ought to do it.

I muddle through. I come up with what I hope are a few slightly witty things, and I make liberal use of the phrase "remind me how you spell your name again?" and hope it's not "M-A-R-K." (Sorry, Mark.)

The line shrinks. The clock strikes the hour. After a few more minutes, it's over.

Later, over a much-appreciated glass of red wine, I reflect on the evening. That's when my exchange with Mr. Teppo comes back to me. I wince, remembering what I said to him.

I send him an abject apology, explaining that I didn't know what it was like.

He writes back: "Delighted that you had a line of people, and I appreciate that you now understand the complete terror that comes with 'oh, write whatever you like!'"

Boy, do I ever.

So the next time I'm the reader, standing in line to get an autograph -- especially from a new author like myself -- I'm going to tell them exactly what I want them to write. Word for word.  I will not say, "whatever you like," or "make it personal -- you know me!"

And then, even if I've known them for twenty years, I will say my name. Because now I know what it looks like from the other side.

I'll even spell it for them.



Thursday, January 21, 2016

Real World Magic

So much research went into The Seer, from weapons to central heating, from shoe-making to the arcana of various magic systems.

Magic. Some people will tell you that we don't have magic here, in this world, the one in which my book is published, the one with lattes and doctor appointments. But let me tell you what I saw the other day.

I'm at my doctor's office, at lunchtime, finishing up an appointment. I show off my ARC -- that's the Advance Reader Copy, also known as an uncorrected proof -- to a woman behind the reception desk. Let's call her Ann.

Ann is delighted. She says she must, right this moment, now that it's her lunch break, start my book. I have to take my ARC with me, so I direct her to my publisher's website where the first ten chapters are available for free. She starts reading on her computer, as I stand there.

She laughs. I'm hoping that's a good thing, since it's not exactly comedy, chapter one. She glances at me, then back to the book.

"I like this," she says.

"I'm glad," I answer. I'm a little stunned at this suddenness, this enthusiasm, but very pleased. I'm a writer, of course I'm pleased. I gather my things to go.

"Oh," she breathes, reading on. "Just my kind of book!" Again, she sends a grinning look my way.

"Thanks," I say.

I turn to leave. I pause. I turn back.

She's still reading.

I've never seen this before, a near-stranger reading my book with this immediacy and gusto. Surely, I think to myself, she'd rather read it without someone watching her, let alone the author. I mutter something polite, something about leaving, hoping she'll say goodbye or wave or some other indicator that she's done with me.

Aloud she wonders what will happen next.

A reader wants to know what will happen next. These are the words writers live for.

Right in front of me, my world and characters are taking shape in the mind and heart of another human being. There is no sensible reason for me to stay here and watch, but I can't seem to make my feet move.

Minutes pass.

More minutes pass.

"Well," I say. "Guess I'd better go."

She cackles at some action in the story. My story. The one I wrote.

"Yes, I'll just --" I say, as if I'm just coming to this idea. I'll just what? "-- just get on with the day," My words are undercut by how stationary I seem to be.

See, she's reading. My book.

I feel foolish, standing there, but also I feel something else I can't quite name. In another moment it comes to me: I am awestruck. Spellbound. I want to pull out my phone and take a picture to mark this moment, but of course I don't, because it would break the spell.

When at last I summon the will to leave, it's been over fifteen minutes of me standing there, watching Ann -- still smiling and chuckling -- read my book. This is a magic I have never before had the privilege to witness, to see a new reader step into my world.

I give myself another moment to take it in. This moment. This magic.

Finally I go to the door, my eyes misty and my smile wide. I glance back before I leave.

She doesn't look up.

She's reading.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Manuscript Launched

I've just sent back the manuscript for The Seer, after reviewing all 695 pages of edits and questions.

Twice.

I've had my works edited for publication before, but that experience was nothing like this - not this large a work, nor reviewed in this level of detail. It arrived bristling with post-its, issues I needed to resolve with minimal changes. I had never seen anything like it, and it turned out I had no idea what I was in for.

Sure, going over every word and note was hard. At times wrenching. I laughed. I ranted. (No, not at my editors. If there was any target, it was me). Sometimes the process was really unpleasant. Sometimes it was exhilarating.

And yes, I'm very glad to be done. But here's the thing I didn't expected to be telling you now:

It was an amazing experience. I'm a better writer now than I was three weeks ago.

Why? Line by line, I got to see my work through my editors' eyes. I saw my mistakes highlighted. Some issues that I thought were settled I had to readdress, like why some people's titles are capitalized where others aren't. I spent a lot of time with the Chicago Manual of Style, re-reading other fantasy authors, discussing the nuances of language with others similarly obsessed. I found answers. I learned.

It was a crash course in what's good and what's weak in my writing, applied by the deft (and merciless) hands of two professional editors, both of whom want the same thing I do, for the novel to be the best it can possibly be. No one was concerned about my feelings at this point, nor should they have been; this was where all our non-trivial efforts came together to produce one final thing:

The story.

Prior to this, I would have thought this part of the process would at best teach me about narrative and flow. Commas maybe. Continuity, perhaps. But no - it was far more than that. This process gave me a view onto my novel that I had never had before. It underscored for me the point of all those words: to build a captivating world, characters who come alive, action that's vivid and meaningful.

Of course the work remains imperfect. I managed to accept that no matter how many times I went through it, mistakes were going to slip by. There is no absolute control over a work of this size.

Nor, perhaps, does there need to be. Because the important thing, again, is the story.

When I shipped the book back to the publisher, I felt the sorrow and elation of something ending and another thing beginning. It's out of my hands, now. I've done everything I know how to do to make the story ring like a bell.

Not quite mine any more, this world. Soon it will belong to my readers.

That's going to be a fine day.

Launched.

Chapter one is here.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lucky to be Alive

An acquaintance of mine was driving on the freeway. His lady friend sat in the passenger seat. She was doing something with her phone. It wasn't working. He glanced over to see if he could help.

Then he looked back at the road.

To avoid rear-ending the car in front of him, he braked and swerved. His car flipped onto its back. On the freeway.

The car was totaled, but he and his passenger -- lucky as heck, I'm sure you'll agree -- walked away, with only minor bruises.

"It changed the way I drive," he told me. "I will never, ever do that again." Astonishment came over his face. "I only looked away for a split second."

A split second.

He got lucky. But you might not. If you haven't already, please: make up your mind, right now, not to look at a phone while you're driving a car. Not ever.

Not even a little.

Not even once.

It's not worth dying over.

Please.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Not Long Enough to Forget How You Swung from the Crystals Above

I took a number of runs at this post. I fell back again and again. A steep incline, this is. Slippery underfoot.

Damn it, what do I want to say?

Jay Lake was my friend. I miss him. A lot.

Recently I was telling someone who had never met Jay a bit about him. He responded that he hoped that when he died someone idolized him so much.

Oh, hardly that. I loved Jay, yes, blind spots, foibles, and all. But he would never have claimed to be a flawless creature. Like most of us, he was a mix of keen self-awareness and fuzzy-sighted clumsiness.

Send 1st class
How human he was. How grand.

Art. Jay Lake was art.


Art? Do I mean I can't describe him but I know him when I see him?

Yes, I think I might indeed mean that. But I also mean this: few of those who knew him didn't have a reaction - positive, negative, or both at once. Like art, he inspired people to feel things, to do things. To write, to engage. To talk.

Across the years the two of us discussed all sorts of things. Consciousness and transformation. Science and language. Sex and lust. Cancer and death. Courage and fear.

Love.

That last year, many of my emails to him were titled: "Things I will have wished I'd said..." I didn't want to leave anything unsaid. Mostly it was, simply: "I love you."
Riding Genre as far as it will go

He inspired me, Jay did. He was unapologetic for who and what he was. He was happy to talk about it, sure, even listen if you had something to say, but he had worked hard to get where he was, and I don't mean his writing - which yes he also worked hard at - but the person-hood he inhabited. He wasn't at all sorry for his opinions, his volume, his language, his brightly colored shirts and socks.

Even before cancer, Jay was busy living his life as if he didn't have a moment to waste, grabbing at every ring he could see, swinging from any chandeliers that would have him.

I remember being an early reader on LAST PLANE TO HEAVEN and SUNSPIN, sitting on his couch one afternoon while nearby Jay's fingers danced across the keyboard of his laptop. Now and then I'd make an amused sound and he'd stop and look at me questioningly. I'd point out something I found interesting in his narrative. A word I didn't know. Structural choices he'd made.

Aha! I have you now!
Somewhere it hit me, just how good a writer he had become. I said as much, adding that I couldn't imagine ever writing as well as he did.

His response was abrupt and adamant: "Don't try to write like me. Write like you."

It was a point he made again and again, to me, to others. While he loved being in the spotlight and giving voice to his views, always, always, when it came to specifics, to me and my dreams, he pushed me to reach for whatever it was that called to me, rather than to follow someone else.

To lurch for the rings. To swing from the chandeliers. To wear bright shirts and socks.

Remember, the best way to learn is through failure. Success is a much less effective teacher. But if you’re going to fail, fail big. Petty failures teach petty lessons. Write the Big Idea stories, the grand, sweeping novels. Open your mouth and shout. Be great. Pretty damned good is the failure condition of greatness. -- Jay Lake, on Motivation

Jay moved me.

Jay was art.

I miss him.

Remember the caption contests?




Speaking of the Art of Jay Lake, here's another view onto the man I want you to know about:

"The Jay Wake Book: A Celebration of Jay Lake", absolutely free and in full color:

PDF Low Resolution (small file size 7MB)

PDF High Resolution (72MB)

HARDCOPY: This POD book is splendid, with quality full-color prints. (The cost of $28.22 covers only the production costs of the book, courtesy of editors and contributors, myself included.)

I love you
(My gratitude to editor Sandra Tayler​ and all contributors to the book.)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What is Story?

Lately I've become obsessed with a question. It is, more or less, this: What is story?

I know some stuff about story. My stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, I have a YA fantasy book that many readers like, and my new fantasy novel is coming out next spring from Baen Books. I know a good story when I've read it. Or written it.

But what is it, at essence? There's something there that I can almost taste, but can't quite get my hands around. Something at the fundament of the concept of story, that crosses all forms, from flash to epic, from song to movie, from Saturday morning cartoons to Shakespeare's sonnets.

What is story? What would I see if I held its beating heart in my hand?

I re-read my writing books, sucking marrow from the words of those who ought to know. I put the question to the internet. I ask everyone who will stand still long enough.

Story, a number of writerly friends inform me, is when a character, with a challenge, after struggling and failing, finally solves (or fails to solve) said challenge. Stuff happens, see. People change. Situations get resolved. Beginning, middle, end. Tension. Resolution. Resonance.

Well, yes. That's plot structure - or some kinds of plot structures, anyway. But I could write a story that fits all that just fine and still brings you to yawns. (Yes, I'm that good.) If it's boring, it's not a story for you. So what makes a story come alive?

It's about character, someone tells me. Intriguing characters who draw you into a greater meaning.

Yes, again. None of this is untrue, but in a sense these are only tools. What about Story with a capital "S"? I'm still hunting for the essence of the beast itself. I'll know it when I hold it in my hand, gooey and throbbing.

"Story..." says Ursula K. Le Guin, in one of her essays, "is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."

That all societies use story seems an important clue to my hunt. That it's a tool to understanding -- another clue. I can sense the answer out there.

In another article she says:

"The very quality of story is to hold, to fascinate."

I can feel myself inching closer.

Casting about for answers on the net, this quote catches my eye:

"What is a story? A structured way of looking at reality. A way that works for us because it matches the way our brains work. Reality, in its raw, unfiltered, and ugly state, is chaotic. But we are not very good at dealing with chaos. Hence, we impose structures on our experiences of reality in order to make sense of it. We impose stories."

Making sense of reality. I hear a distant bell. I'm closer.

Some friends question the intensity of my obsession. "Why do you need to know how the sausage is made? Isn't it enough that you can make it?"

It sure isn't. I need to understand not just sausage, but Sausage.

Finding another analogy wouldn't hurt, either.

Ever played with a kitten and a string? Even better -- tie a ball of crinkly paper to the end. You tug and the kitten follows, utterly fascinated. Maybe it pounces, making adorable mock-killing motions. After a while, kitten might tire just a bit, and sit back on its haunches, and look around to see if there's another crinkly ball lurking in the neighborhood.

Want kitten's rapt attention back? Draw the crinkly ball behind a corner, just out of sight. Somewhere not visible but clearly in reach. Kitten is unable to resist following. Perhaps it's genetic wiring for the mouse that has just slipped into a shallow hole. Kitten will follow. Kitten has no choice.

As I see it, this is Story. Kitten Story.

What is the human equivalent? When we are deeply intrigued by a tale, what makes us so? When we are moved to tears, what has done this? How does a story become irresistible? What makes us care so much, makes us so happy when it's completed well?

I know the answer varies from person to person, from culture to culture, and across genres. But I believe there's something at the heart of all stories that draws our attention relentlessly forward, that leads our ravenously curious minds around. As if we were kittens chasing crinkly paper balls. That thing we are genetically unable to resist.

Another writer friend says this: "Stories are ways to live without living. To experience significant things without all the troubles of actually being there. Living takes time and resources; If you can live a dozen years around a campfire in one night, there's value there. Useful experience on the cheap."

Stories can teach us how to live, so we don't have to try to live all those lives ourselves.

I can smell it now, the answer. It's pungent. I'm so close.

I score a chance to talk about plot with an award-winning story author, and at one point in the conversation he's on about characters who face challenges that keep getting worse, about how they slam up against a dilemma with obvious resolutions, but the ideal story solves the dilemma in a non-obvious way, and then...

...and then...

The bell rings. I have it. My answer.

I'm bouncing up and down, saying "that's it! that's it!" and my friend is gently trying to tell me that while it might be a profound insight for me, it's not necessarily going to seem like a big deal to everyone else. But I don't care -- I have my answer -- I have the beating heart of Story, right in my hand.

It's not complicated. In fact, it's deliciously simple.

Oh, you want it, too? Here it is.

Our minds are built for making sense out of the world, and making sense is, at its core, about solving puzzles. So when someone starts solving puzzles and unwinding mysteries in front of us, we notice fast. If the puzzle or mystery happens to be similar to something we've tried to solve ourselves, successfully or not, we become intrigued. Stories that work for us intrigue us because they solve mysteries we care about.

Now, I use the words "puzzle" and "mystery" loosely here. A social challenge. How power is wielded. Dealing with death. Exploring new lands. Surviving hardship. Finding love. Making community. Having children. Living in peace. The nature of consciousness. What we want. What we fear. All this and more.

Story is puzzle solving, done well.

I start to see how the canonical rules of storytelling fall naturally out of this principle. Why is it so important we identify with the character? Because if the character isn't enough like us, we can't follow the pattern to the solution. Why the escalating challenges? To show that the character is dealing with a non-trivial problem, one worth solving. Why must the character transform? Because they can't solve the problem at the story's start and at the conclusion they can, so the problem changed, the character changed, or it's a lousy story. To see how we might follow in their path, the change must be evident. Why an unexpected solution? Because we already know the expected and obvious ones. I could go on.

As humans, we are keenly aware when anyone tells us they've untangled a knot. It intrigues us at a very deep level. When Story draws us forward irresistibly, it is offering to solve a mystery for us.

When it delivers, it gives us great satisfaction, because that's how we and our clever minds are put together.

So I've solved my mystery. The crinkly ball is mine.

Friday, May 1, 2015

May Day, Map Day


Return the map! It will bring you great danger.

The map is not the story, but if your characters leave the house and wander around at all, you'll need a map. You can have it before you begin, or you can draw it as you go, but you need a sense of location or you'll get lost, and no one likes it when the author -- the tour guide, after all -- can't find their way around.

My maps are minimal. High Fantasy has a history of being extravagant with unnecessary details, and I resist that -- I tend to follow the maxim "Cut out all the parts that aren't interesting" (Ray Vukcevich, to Jay Lake, as related here)

So, yes, I have my maps. Right by my computer so I can see where the action is happening and where my people are going. Check that it all makes sense.

Still, somehow, it didn't occur to me that the reader might also like to know where the action was happening and where the characters were going. So I was surprised when my editor said, "we'll need your map, of course."

Need my map? But... but... I'm not a map person. I just have these sketches...

No problem, my editor says, we have a guy for that.

I do a little research on their guy and I'm suitably impressed; he's discussed with reverence and awe. His job is to take my map and make it look good. I provide the raw materials and he makes it sparkle and shine.

I slowly exhale. I don't have to worry about the map after all.

Well, wait -- I have to give him something, and it has to be correct. I take a closer look at the sketch I'm planning to send him, and I realize some of the details are, ahem, not quite right.

Oh, not the book -- the narrative itself is flawless, as to places and directions. Ahem. But primarily it's my map that needs fixing. Provinces where they should be. Villages and cities moved to the right -- if general -- location. Major rivers inserted. Show the Great Road. Things that if you're going to bother with a map at all, need to be present and correct enough to elucidate rather than befuddle.

Here we go into the warm part of the year. The well-lit part of the year. Good light by which to draw.

Map Day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Seer: Signed, Sealed, Delivered

I've been waiting until today to tell you what happened two weeks ago. Before I do that, let's back up a bit.

Early last year Baen Books told me that, yes, they were interested in my novel, The Seer, but that they wanted changes. Big changes. In a long conversation, they outlined the revisions they wanted. Totally understand, they said, if you'd rather not.

Thing was, they were right. The editors had, essentially, called me out on all my short-cuts, weak characterizations, arcs that needed to go farther, an ending that needed more closure.

Yeah, I said: count me in. I'm in. All in.

Then I went to work. The revisions they wanted were huge -- plot-changing, character wrenching -- and in many cases they did not play nicely with each other. I realized that I needed to find new ways to tell a story that was fast becoming more complicated than anything I had laid hands on before. Bluntly, this story was going to require a better writer than I was to finish it. Somehow, I had to become that better writer.

I wish I could tell you it all blossomed in magic born of necessity, and there were some rare times when the words just flowed and it felt like some kind of magic, but most of the time it was me just reviewing plot-lines, checking maps, consulting my experts, and putting one finger in front of the other to write what too often felt like the clumsiest prose I'd ever fashioned.

I took out a lot of words. All the way through and in the final rewrites. My outtakes file is about half the size of the final manuscript, and that isn't short. (Though, I hasten to add, shorter than Game of Thrones. Ha!)

But most of the time what got me through the current scene or chapter was something akin to terror: I had signed a contract -- I had taken real money -- I had a deadline. Sure, I could quit, but then I'd have to flee the country and live in shame under an assumed name for the rest of my life.

There were moments where that seemed the better option.

I lined up some powerful allies. First readers. Friends. Experts. Advisers. My Muse. My Reader Advocate. (I'll explain later.) I warned them all that there would be times when I would loose faith in my ability, and that their job was to get me to the finish line. And they did. Wow, did they. More on that in another post.

As a writer I took a lot of risks with this book, with the story-line, characters, tensions, symbol choices, and so on -- things I hope my reader never notices consciously. I had no idea if the publisher would like what I'd done.

Sometimes I would lie there trying to sleep and think about all the risky things I'd done that they could object to, all the strange twists and turns I'd made, all the ways in which I'd incorporated the changes they wanted, but gone a fair bit beyond what might have been enough, all in order to tell the story that needed to be told.

In the last two months before the deadline, it came to me -- in my gut, not intellectually -- that I had to write the story the best I possibly could -- so that, if the publisher did not like it after all, I would know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that it wasn't because I'd held back.

I didn't hold back.

Then, the last day of March -- two weeks ago -- I shipped it. That's what I wanted to tell you.

I was surprisingly calm about it. I had, after all, given it everything I had. If it wasn't good enough, well, so be it; I knew I hadn't taken any shortcuts.

Today my editor at Baen wrote me back. He said he'd finished the book. The fixes he wants are minor.

He called it wonderful. He called it excellent. He said I'd made all the changes he'd hoped for and more. He said he was proud to be publishing it.

Me, too. Very much so. The Seer is scheduled to hit ink in spring of 2016.